Without significant emissions reductions and carbon removals the world will exceed its remaining carbon budget and the 1.5 °C target for global warming well before 2050. At current emission rates, the remaining global carbon budget will be exhausted within 10 years. Due to the likely probability of breaching of the 1.5 °C target we need to be prepared to remove significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere in the coming decades.

In our new position paper, we will raise the main issues and trade-offs that we consider to be of high importance for long-term carbon sequestration in natural ecosystems and the potential of sustainable bioeconomy and of fossil-free circular economy to support this. We hope that these insights will help the EU Commission in its work to create a framework to scale up the long-term carbon sequestration capacity of natural sinks without compromising the necessity of moving away from fossil-based raw materials and energy.

While emissions reductions should be the priority, temporary as well as permanent carbon removals are needed to reach the EU’s 2050 climate target and reduce the atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gas concentrations to minimize the effects of overshooting 1.5 ⁰C of warming, which now appears likely. However, the rate of nature-based carbon removal has been declining within the EU since 2013. This is largely due to aging forests resulting in a weakened carbon sink in EU forests, but also due to higher harvest levels and increased occurrence of natural disturbances.

During the last ten years, forest carbon sink has declined by one fourth, to the lowest level post-1990. Although ageing forest means decreasing carbon sink, it simultaneously means higher amount of carbon stored in the forest. To mitigate climate change, the ultimate aim is to remove as much carbon as possible from the atmosphere and store it in the biosphere, geosphere and hydrosphere instead, i.e. increase their carbon stock. However, the trend of decreasing forest growth is alarming, and its root causes need a better scientific understanding.

To reverse the trend, the European Commission proposed a certification framework of carbon removals to incentivize carbon sequestration via carbon farming activities and help to reach net zero emissions. The scheme would cover permanent carbon storage, carbon farming and carbon storage in products within the forest and agriculture sectors, initially on a voluntary basis.

A framework of incentives is necessary from the perspective of landowners, to stimulate better forestmanagement and agricultural practices from a climate point of view. However, from society’s point of view, the framework does not provide a complete toolbox for long-term transformation. During the coming decades there will be increasing needs for land use and complementary measures are needed to ensure optimal land use planning and long-term capacity for carbon sequestration, increased carbon storage in biomaterials and to allocate resources for climate-smart research and development.

CLC believes that a sound and effective decision making requires a holistic understanding of the different interests regarding land use. Comprehensive understanding of land use for agriculture, forestry and other purposes, as well as the complexity, diversity and long-time horizons of both ecological processes and management decisions is needed, to understand the EU’s long-term capacity to sequester carbon by natural processes.

An ambitious long-term target for land-based carbon removals would provide a starting point. The target should be a basis for incentivizing long-term planning of land use, taking into account the slow dynamics of ecological processes and shifts in land use planning. Our view is that this target should be in the order of 500 Mt CO2eq beyond 2050 in the current LULUCF-sector including forest and agricultural lands, wettlands and land for settlements as well as carbon stored in wood products.

The target is ambitious, but according to our analysis, possible. This requires a significant strengthening of sinks on land used for forestry and, in particular, the strengthening of the bioeconomy related to the forest sector, as well as the transformation of agricultural lands from an emission source to carbon sinks. The target should be supported by a credible certification framework for land-based carbon removals, holistic long-term land use plan and incentives for bioeconomy and long-term carbon storage.

Read the CLC position paper The EU needs a holistic land-use plan to enable enhanced carbon removals here.  

For more information, please contact CLC Development Director, Systemic Climate Solutions, Juha Turkki (juha.turkki(a)clc.fi).